Francisco J. Ayala was looking for a weekend family retreat 30 years ago when a real estate agent showed him 400 acres of rolling vineyards near Lodi in the Central Valley.
They had not produced much for the previous owners but Ayala, then a research biologist at UC Davis, saw promise. He used his scientific training, sought advice from experts and was soon producing well-regarded crops of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and other varietals.
Ayala joined the faculty at UC Irvine in 1989 and his reputation as one of the world’s top molecular biologists has grown — as have the earnings from his vineyards, which total more than 2,000 acres in northern San Joaquin and Sacramento counties.
The bounty of those fields will now help sustain learning on the Irvine campus, with the announcement Tuesday that Ayala is giving $10 million — $1 million a year for the next decade — to the School of Biological Sciences. The gift is the largest ever by a UCI faculty member.
“This university has been very good to me,” Ayala, 77, said in an interview in his campus office. “I have been given the opportunity to do research and my major scientific accomplishments have been done at this university. I have enjoyed my students and colleagues — this is a way of expressing my gratitude.”
It is not Ayala’s first donation to UCI. Last year, the professor, a former Dominican priest, won the prestigious Templeton Prize for championing what he sees as the vital, but separate, roles of science and faith. He donated the $1.5 million in proceeds to help recruit and support top UCI graduate students in biological sciences.
The latest gift overwhelmed administrators at the university, which like other University of California campuses has slashed its budget in response to state funding reductions.
“Francisco has given so much to the world of science, to our students, and to the broad discourse on science and spirituality over so many decades, so for him to also direct these considerable resources to our campus is really beyond words,” UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake said. “It’s the right kind of gift, right when we need it, targeted to produce the greatest impact for our campus.”
The gift will establish a $2-million endowed dean’s chair as well as four new research chairs in Ayala’s name.
Biological sciences Dean Al Bennett, who will be the first to hold the endowed chair, said the gift was especially gratifying because it came from a faculty member and friend of more than two decades.
“Money when it’s green is always nice, but to have it come from a family member is wonderful,” Bennett said.
The timing is also fortunate, said Bennett, coming as biological sciences has had to cut its budget more than 10% in recent years.
Drake and Bennett lauded Ayala’s business acumen and vision that turned what was considered less than prime real estate into a family business that annually produces nearly 14,000 tons of grapes, which are sold to major wineries such as E.&J. Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Bogle and Sebastiani.
Ayala is a hands-on grower, frequently using his daily 30-minute walk from his home to campus to consult by cellphone with his general manager. He lectures frequently on wine as well as science, and swears by the grape’s health benefits.
“When I go to the doctor, even the ophthalmologist, and they ask, ‘What medicines are you taking?,’ I say one aspirin in the morning and two glasses of wine in the evening,” he said in an accent that betrays his native Spain.
Ayala grew up in Madrid under the rule of Francisco Franco and at 12 was hooked by science in a class taught by a priest. In 1960, Ayala was ordained, too, but later left the priesthood to study genetics at Columbia University.
His research has focused on cures for malaria and other diseases, laying the groundwork for potential vaccines. A believer in the importance of faith, Ayala has been a vigorous opponent of the intrusion of religion into science and was asked by the National Academy of Sciences to be the principal author of “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” a refutation of intelligent design theories. At UC Irvine, Ayala holds professorships in biology, philosophy and logic and the philosophy of science.
Ayala’s gift embodies his love of science and his religious training, said Michael Clegg, a UCI biological sciences professor and longtime friend of Ayala.
“He’s remarkable in managing this very large complex business in his spare time while teaching and being a prolific author,” said Clegg. “I suspect some of that is the discipline from the priesthood, not only in terms of work habit but also in terms of his generosity.”